Monday, April 18, 2011

My Life with the Saints

When I was in fourth grade, I met my first Catholic. He was a boy in my class, who invited me over to his house one day. I don’t remember a crucifix or a Madonna; I don’t remember the term catechism or CCD being mentioned; I don’t even remember my friend’s name or what he looked like. All I remember is Butler’s Lives of the Saints, on the bookshelf above his head.

I understood, perhaps from a comment that he made, perhaps by noticing Butler, that my fourth-grade buddy, or at least someone in his family, knew about the saints and I didn’t. This gave me a sense of loss, the awareness that something was missing from my life. I know I didn’t envy his being Catholic. John Kennedy ran against Richard Nixon for president in my fourth-grade year, and I distinctly remember declaring to someone, “I would never vote for a Catholic!”

Catholic was strange, alien, suspect in my Midwestern Protestant world. Forty-seven years later, when I told my father that I was converting to Catholicism, his first reaction was, “My mother would roll over in her grave.” Maybe that’s where the prejudice came from: his Methodist parents, although he himself never showed any anti-Catholic prejudice and was beamingly proud of my conversion. Yet despite the bias of my upbringing, I knew, even at age nine, that the saints were something else again.

We attended a Congregational church in our Midwestern community. It was a beautiful white building with nothing on the walls except high, clear windows that let the Sunday morning light pour in. I remember no stained glass, no Stations of the Cross, no iconography whatsoever except for a naked cross at the head of the nave. Nothing spoke of the saints.

In the suburbs of New York, where we moved when I was ten, my parents scouted for a church and ended at an Episcopalian congregation in the rolling countryside north of town. Here the walls were stone and the light streamed in from one side only, through large, sliding glass doors that overlooked an upscale garden. As I recall, there was stained glass above the altar, but no saints anywhere to be found

In our new church there was one intriguing set of symbols that I did not remember from our church in the Midwest. When I was twelve, I took confirmation classes, which qualified me to kneel at the sanctuary rail and take communion one Sunday a month—the statutory Episcopal limit, it seemed. Along the rail, there were cushions for kneeling that had been slip-cased in needlepoint by some industrious members of the altar guild. From left to right, against a blue knit background, were the traditional symbols of the twelve Apostles: keys for Peter, an X-shaped cross or saltire for Andrew, a carpenter’s square for St. Thomas, the saw with which St. James the Less was martyred (pictured), and so on. I must have asked about these symbols, and it was probably my mother who gave me the answer. She is knowledgeable about cultural history, and it was her mother, not my father’s, who would rattle teacups in her community by converting to Catholicism after my grandfather died, when I was about twenty-five.

The symbols of the Apostles were like Butler to me: clues to hidden treasure, hints that behind the spare Protestant storyline of Nativity, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, there was a secret language that filled in the gaps, enlarging the simplistic narrative into an epic of adventure and glory. I was in my twenties before I understood that this epic was Catholic.

By that time, I had wandered, alternately on fire and lukewarm, through several years of wishing to live right. In this there was a certain amount of adolescent cluelessness, and in the psycholingo popular at the time, I thought I was experiencing an identity crisis. But my late adolescence was driven by something more: a search for spiritual exemplars and ways of living like them. If I had remained a churchgoer after leaving home for boarding school in tenth grade, I might have found my way to the saints much sooner. But in the everything-overboard mentality of those Vietnam War years, I probably would not have been satisfied with anything familiar. 

Mid-career in college, I took some time off and lived with a friend in Paris. There was a Catholic parish in our neighborhood, St. Sulpice, where we eavesdropped on the mass in French. Around the corner from St. Sulpice was a Catholic bookstore, where I picked up a copy of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola in French. I read it then and still have it today on my bookshelf. En route to Madrid, my friend and I stopped at Lourdes, where I was entranced by the story of St. Bernadette and a candlelit procession of thousands chanting the Hail Mary in three languages alternately. In Rome, St. Peter’s was our first and last destination, while Assisi was an Italian side trip that we made more than once. Here in a church basement I stared in stunned silence at the intact body of St. Francis’s spiritual sister, St. Clare, covered only with a gauzy shroud. Every feature was clearly discernible beneath the veil eight centuries after her death. I almost thought I saw the gauze rise and fall with her breath.

St. Francis was the saint who hit me over the head first, especially in Nikos Kazantzakis’s fictionalized biography and later in Franco Zeffirelli’s film, Brother Son, Sister Moon, in which Francis and Clare are flower children loping through sun-honeyed fields to the strains of English folk minstrel Donovan. Over the next thirty years, as my unchurched life rolled on, other saints grabbed my attention. Vita Sackville West’s biography of Joan of Arc (pictured) was a thrilling discovery; I was astonished that Joan is no legend. The facts of her miraculous life are known in minute detail thanks to exhaustive testimony recorded at her several trials. When was it I realized that the central figure in the film that had hypnotized me since the mid-1960s was himself a saint, Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons? As time went on, I saw that film fifteen or twenty times, in the cinema, in syndicated TV rerun, on video, on DVD.

For about a month in the mid-1990s, I attended daily mass at the Catholic church in our town. I sat through the liturgy without taking communion until one day I stood with the other parishioners, approached the priest bearing a chalice, and heard him say, “The Body of Christ.” Not knowing what to respond, I said nothing, held my hands before me as I had in the Episcopal Church, received the Host, and consumed it. I was immediately ashamed. When I got home, I asked my wife, born a Catholic, what one is supposed to say when the priest says, “The Body of Christ.” She told me, “Amen.” At that moment, I realized that I would have to stop attending mass until I was ready to become a Catholic. I was an impostor before God.

I never thought about returning to daily mass for the next ten or twelve years. Then one Friday night, when my wife was out with girlfriends, I ate in a restaurant, had one drink too many, and found myself in a Borders bookstore. I went directly to the two-for-one table, thinking that I might find a birthday present for a friend whose birthday was coming up. The next moment I was in front of the book that changed my life. What was it about the book that I noticed first? The cover? A striking painting of ten men and women standing side by side with their hands posed prayerfully in front of them, a multiracial gathering, including one bearded fellow who held an upside-down cross in front of him. No, not the cover. The author? James Martin, SJ. I knew that meant Society of Jesus, Jesuit.

No, what grabbed me was the title, My Life with the Saints, and some of the names I immediately glimpsed in the table of contents. Francis: the rich boy turned mendicant, the holy fool for God. God asked Francis to “repair my church,” and did he ever! Joan: a shepherd girl who, like Bernadette of Lourdes, had visions that spoke to her, visions that told her to ride across war-torn France to lead the disgraced dauphin into battle and to witness the dauphin crowned king at Reims—maid turned militant turned martyr, who died at the stake with the holy name Jesu on her lips. Thomas More (pictured): husband, father, scholar, diplomat, statesman, poet, heroic defender of the Faith, Renaissance man turned martyr and saint, “His Majesty’s good servant, but God’s first.

Three dramatically different figures—beggar, warrior, statesman—one faith in common. These three saints had professed the same Credo, said the same prayers, received the same Body of Christ, and died with the same God on their minds, in their hearts, and on their lips. As I attended daily mass and attended RCIA meetings in the old convent a block away, I was convinced that what had worked for these three saints, and for every other saint in Butler, would just have to be good enough for me.

Was it possible that each of the saints—not just Francis and Thomas and Joan, but every last one chronicled by Butler, to say nothing of the hundreds added since—was deluded or just plain wrong about the existence of God, the centrality of Christ, and the reality of human salvation through faith and works? That seemed unlikely to me, although I couldn’t prove otherwise.

All that I knew for a certainty, and the certainty has only increased, is that morning mass is the best hour of my day. I do it—I am a Catholic—because nothing else makes as much sense to me. Three and a half years on, nothing else seems to make much sense at all.

[This is a revised version of a post I first wrote in the early days of “Why I Am Catholic,” the blog I founded in 2009. Thanks to my friends Frank and Allison for carrying on that torch with such class.]

2 comments:

  1. Dear Mr Bull,

    Beautiful story! Reading about the saints is a sure way of swelling my heart and bringing tears to my eyes, as do almost all conversion stories.

    I have a favourite book on St Joan d'Arc and love Paul Scofield and 'A Man for all Seasons'. However, I discovered my own favourite saint, 'Saint Mary Magdalen', through reading a book of the same name by another priest, Fr. Vincent McNabb, O.P. (Burns Oates & Washbourne Ltd, 1940).

    Like yourself, she has the added-honour-due of being a convert, of course.

    ReplyDelete
  2. This is beautiful. I grew up with Butler's Lives of the Saints. I made friends and had great devotions to a couple of them when I was a child. After the typical falling away in my early 20's and my return, I have as a homeschool mom reacquainted myself with my two childhood saint friends and made many others! We don't think of them as friends so much, as heavenly souls who suredly attained heaven. I realize now that I wasn't such a good friend to them, but they never abandoned me during my falling away. I am thankful for their prayers for me then and the times I feel the strength of their prayers now. Their intercessory prayers in heaven and inspirational lives while on earth are a great help because they were born with original sin and conquered their bodily temptations before they died.

    I am glad to see this post and may you be blessed as you spread the value of knowledge and friendship of the saints.

    ReplyDelete

If you have trouble posting comments, please log in as Anonymous and sign your comment manually.